Khiree Smith said he knew the rest of Connecticut wasn't exactly like the city of Hartford, where he lives and goes to high school.
But after spending the weekend in the woods of the state's northeastern corner, with a group of black city teenagers and their white counterparts from suburban Woodstock, Smith said he was stunned to realize just how different things are.
"It's hard to believe we're even in the same state," Smith said.
Still, Smith said, he was pleased to learn "that we have more things alike than differences."
That seemed to be the message most of the students took away from their experience. Arriving Friday night at the YMCA's Camp Woodstock, the teenagers spent more than 48 hours working together on team-building activities both outdoors and in.
Carl Hardrick, a community leader and violence mediator, helped organize the event, which brought about 15 teens, most of them from Weaver High School, together with 15 high school students who attend Woodstock Academy.
"These experiences are important because in the real world, you're not going to be surrounded by just your community and you need to begin to understand a population you're not familiar with," said Hardrick, who works with anti-violence group Stump the Violence. "If you are a kid at Weaver High School, you've got a 99.9 percent African American and Latino population. These kids need to see that they have more things in common, that suburban problems are the same as your problems, they might just be solved differently."
By Sunday morning, the teens made quick work of solving one problem — how to get each other over a 10-foot-high wall with no rope and no footholds, using only each other. After 15 minutes of brainstorming, they headed outside into the 20-degree weather and quickly hoisted each other over the smooth wall, with the final youth sprinting and leaping to the outstretched arms of two others at the top.
The teenagers didn't leave the experiences as best friends. On the last day, when they gathered indoors for a final sharing exercise, all the Hartford teens sat on one side of the room and the Woodstock youths on the other. They needed to be encouraged to sit by someone they didn't go to school with.
But that didn't mean nothing was learned.
Katie Dvorsky, 17, of Woodstock, said she only knows one or two black people, and relished the opportunity to meet boys and girls of a different culture.
"It was a short time together but I still got tangible evidence that people are the same regardless of color," she said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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